Thursday, August 29, 2013

Can a Team Be Worse for Getting Better?

Stop me if you've heard this one before:

A Turk, a South American, and a guy named Zaza walk into a bar...

Both the punchline of that terrible joke and the offseason moves John Hammond and Herb Kohl have been making won't have a lot of Milwaukeens laughing, except perhaps to keep from crying in their pints of Schlitz. One season away from what could be the best Draft class ever and the Bucks are trying their damndest to not be a lottery team.

This is, of course, by design. The Bucks' owner Herb Kohl has said publicly that his squad will not "tank it" and that he remains committed to putting forth a competitive team each season. Kohl also felt that last year's team was, in fact "pretty good." What exactly does that mean? One could certainly make the case that a team whose record consistently hovers around .500 could be considered "pretty good." The question is: can they become better than "pretty good" without first getting much, much worse?

Kohl's comments open up an interesting debate. Some feel that "tanking it" is the only way for an average team to rebuild in today's NBA. They could point to the success of teams like the Thunder and Cavaliers who had to hit rock bottom before obtaining a Superstar to build around. Others feel that teams owe it to the fans and season ticket holders to put forth a decent product every season. People of this school of thought could point to the success of the Lakers and Mavericks, who have attempted to stay competitive every season for the better part of two decades.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present into evidence "Those in Favor of Tanking It's" Exhibit A: The projected starting lineup of the 2013-2014 Milwaukee Bucks.

Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Carlos Delfino, Eryan Ilyasova, and Larry Sanders.

The NBA version of the Expendables.

Make no mistake; the team as it was previously constructed wasn't going anywhere. Moves had to be made for the Bucks to become anything more than a 1st round warmup for the Heat or the Pacers. Last season it became painfully obvious that pairing Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the back court worked about as well as pairing Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke for a mashup at the VMAs. The tandem of talented borderline All-Stars were supposed to comprise a playmaking backcourt the Bucks could build a competitive team around. Despite what many (myself included) predicted, the two never developed any type of chemistry or made the Bucks a competitive team.

It was time to rebuild. Conventional wisdom says that there are two main ingredients in the rebuilding process: clearing cap space and trading in older, more expensive players for Draft picks or younger, cheaper talent.

Saying goodbye to Monta Ellis and trading Brandon Jennings for younger, cheaper point guard Brandon Knight seemed like the first logical steps in the Bucks' rebuilding. GM John Hammond's decision to part ways with defensive specialist Luc Mbah a Moute (shedding $19 million of payroll) looked an awful lot like a move designed to clear cap space rather than win games. Letting sharpshooters Mike Duleavy and JJ Redick go for one measly 2nd round Draft Pick (when teams are lining up to overpay shooters) seemed like the game plan of a franchise in a hurry to get worse.

The other moves; not so much so. Moves such as:
  • Paying an inconsistent backup shooting guard like OJ Mayo $24 million
  • Signing underwhelming 29-year-old center Zaza Pachulia for $18 million 
  • Adding career backups Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal, making 5 of their 15 roster spots point guards  
  • Inking 31-year-old Carlos Delfino to a 3-year contract

Coach Larry Drew has quite the jigsaw puzzle to put together. The Bucks are now a team loaded with well-compensated role players, none of whom averaged more than 13 ppg last season. Who will step up and fill the void left by Ellis and Jennings? Is anybody on this current roster a bonafide All-Star? The sobering reality is that the sum total of these offseason moves (in addition to the tanking and rebuilding of other teams in the East) very likely keep the Bucks exactly where they were for the past two years; a team hovering around .500 that either barely makes or misses the Playoffs. A team that has no real chance to compete with the big dogs in the East and no real chance of getting a high lottery pick in the Draft. Sometimes a team can actually be in worse shape for getting better.